“It’s not funny.” William glared at Elizabeth in mock annoyance, pressing his lips together to hold back the grin that threatened to burst onto his face. He held her perched on his lap, his sheltering arm supporting her while her shoulders shook with laughter.

She took a deep breath and kissed his cheek, her eyes dancing with merriment. “It is so funny,” she retorted, “and you’d think so too if it were my stomach grumbling at inopportune moments instead of yours. But I have to admit it doesn’t take much to make me laugh right now. I’m a little giddy.”

hotel bedroom A little giddy. William understood, afloat in a sea of delight, relief, and growing desire. He glanced over his shoulder into her dimly-lit hotel room, the bed’s pristine white linens glowing like the Holy Grail. She exploited his position to press her lips to his neck, her unerring radar targeting a vulnerable spot behind his ear. The few remaining drops of blood not already pooled in his groin sprinted to join their comrades, and he groaned in delicious agony.

“At least I don’t need to ask if you’re hungry,” she teased.

His cheek twitched as he suppressed a grimace at her innocent—or at least he hoped so—double entendre. He silently scolded his body for its ungentlemanly behavior, his reproofs as effective as a droplet of water on a bonfire. Fantasies of Elizabeth lying beneath him, naked and warm and welcoming, looped endlessly through his mind.

She had been no help at all, encouraging his lustful thoughts by tasting every skin cell on his neck and attacking the patch of his chest peeking through the collar of his polo shirt. He wished he had worn a button-front shirt—it might have inspired her to unveil additional territory. He buried his face in her hair, inhaling the clean floral scent of her shampoo.

How would she react if he carried her to the bed and surrendered to the cravings buffeting his self-control? Would she be eager, nervous, or offended by his impatience? He would have traded Pemberley for the gift of clairvoyance—well, no, perhaps not Pemberley. His Porsche, then. But until a psychic beamed onto the terrace to accept the bargain, he thought it best to linger in safe territory.

Besides, he wanted her in his bed at Pemberley, not here under the inhibiting cloud of her aunt and uncle’s presence in the next room. The Gardiners were temporarily out of the way but they would be back in a few hours, and his heated imagination had concocted elaborate plans requiring the entire night to execute.

Even the Gardiners’ abduction by aliens wouldn’t solve William’s other, more urgent problem. He had anticipated spending hours in earnest conversation with Elizabeth before they exchanged much more than a handshake. The speed of their reconciliation had caught him unprepared for anything beyond the passionate kisses and caresses they had already shared. He stared over her head into the darkness, silently giving thanks that it wasn’t possible to die of frustration.

“Hey, where did you go?” Elizabeth murmured in his ear, raking the lobe gently with her teeth and sending a fresh wave of desire slamming into his rib cage. “You’re a thousand miles away all of a sudden.”

“Sorry,” he rasped. He drew her head firmly away from his ear, tempted nearly beyond his endurance to carry her inside and put an end to this purgatory. “I was thinking about … something.”

“I’d offer a penny for your thoughts, but my purse is in the bedroom.” Her hands massaged his shoulders, the heat almost unbearable through his soft knit shirt.

I’d be happy to take you in there any time you want. An insidious part of his mind whispered that the Gardiners might stay out longer than expected, perhaps well into the night. And as for protection, there were other ways to prevent pregnancy that—

No. He flung the idea aside, like a dog shaking water off its coat. The “other ways” were unreliable, particularly since he couldn’t trust his self-control in this area. He sighed and loosened his hold on her. “Maybe we should be on our way to dinner.”

“Oh, okay,” she said, a small frown creasing her forehead. Her expression cleared and she hopped to her feet, extending her hands to him. “In case you need help getting up after I’ve been squashing you for heaven knows how long,” she teased.

He rose from the chair unaided and seized her hand. “Feel free to squash me any time,” he said, grinning. “Are you ready to go?”

“Give me a minute to fix my hair and make-up and grab my purse.”

A solution to his dilemma parachuted into his head fully formed, and he acted on it at once. “Why don’t you meet me out in front of the hotel? It’ll take a few minutes for the valet to bring my car around.” But first he would stop at the gift shop just off the lobby and hope that it had what he needed.

hotel after dark “You can just call and tell them the ticket number,” she said, with a small shake of the head. “The phone is right over—”

“I’d rather do it in person.” William rummaged through his brain for an excuse. “I tipped one of the attendants to take special care of the car, and I want him to handle it.”

Elizabeth’s wide, warm smile nearly buckled his knees. “That’s my guy,” she said, resting a hand on his shoulder as she stretched up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “Protect the car at all costs. Is it another Ferrari?”

“Meet me in the lobby and find out.” His hands encircled her waist and he bent his head for a five-alarm kiss from which they emerged flushed and breathless. He glanced regretfully at the bed. “We’d better stop this, or we may not make it to the restaurant before it closes.”

“You know, we could order room service.” She reached up to smooth his hair, setting his scalp thrumming with electricity. “And then we wouldn’t have to go anywhere.” Her lips grazed his cheek.

Suddenly he couldn’t breathe, and he decided it was possible to die of frustration after all. Summoning the last of his resolve, he stepped away from her. “I’ll see you in the lobby.”

 

Elizabeth stood staring at the door, wondering what had sent William striding through it with such single-minded purpose. After turning down my offer. How flattering.

She knew she had as much right as William to be the seducer instead of the seduced, but residual hesitation, perhaps from Michael, or perhaps from adolescent embarrassment about her early-developing body, made her uneasy about taking even the subtlest initiative. It didn’t help her confidence when she finally shoved her inhibitions aside only to have her quarry bolt in the opposite direction.

She stepped into the bathroom and studied herself in the mirror. She didn’t look frightening. Her lipstick had vanished, but she wouldn’t have been surprised to find all her make-up melted away, considering the heat they had generated on the terrace. Yet despite that heat, William had preferred the restaurant to a private dinner for two, served within sight of her bed.

She fixed her lipstick and frowned at her reflection. She could drive herself insane trying to read William’s mind; his talent for inscrutability was exceeded only by his musical abilities. But she had no doubts about what she wanted. She packed her toothbrush and a few other necessities into her purse. And if I’m taking charge, what about—?

Elizabeth hurried out the door, grateful to have remembered this crucial detail. She would have to hope the hotel gift shop stayed open on Sunday evenings.

 

William pulled the car into Cliffside1 restaurant’s driveway, stifling a yawn behind his hand. He blinked hard, hoping to clear his bleary vision, though his drooping eyelids left him viewing the world chiefly through the veil of his eyelashes. It astonished him that his body could be on the verge of collapse while his heart executed a ceaseless string of back flips.

He had been too tired to speak during the drive, his fatigue-soaked brain engrossed by the challenges of driving on the left-hand side of the road. Elizabeth had been silent as well, aside from a few teasing remarks about the Porsche. “Some men have a woman in every port,” she had said with a sly grin. “With you, it’s a sports car.” Her hand had covered his where it rested on the gearshift lever. “Not that I’m complaining.”

restaurant entrance The parking attendant hurried around the car to assist Elizabeth while William hauled himself to his feet. She tucked her hand into the crook of his arm, and together they mounted the few steps to the restaurant’s front door.

Cliffside was William’s favorite restaurant on the island. The food was excellent, the wine list superb, and the view unparalleled. Although William had never taken a date there, Richard had often boasted about the magical properties of a table nestled into a cliff overlooking the ocean, especially on a moonlit night. “I’m telling you, old man,” Richard had chortled one afternoon as they lounged together by the pool, “add a good bottle of wine, and I practically have to pry them off me.”

outdoor restaurant after dark William glanced at Elizabeth, her rapt gaze fixed on the torch-lit dining area below. “It’s so beautiful,” she sighed, stepping closer to him and squeezing his arm. Apparently Richard hadn’t exaggerated.

He gave his name to the hostess, who grimaced and excused herself, dashing away. As he pondered her odd behavior, a wave of fatigue sent him reeling. He swayed drunkenly, grabbing the hostess’s podium to steady himself.

Elizabeth clutched his arm. “Are you all right?”

outdoor restaurant after dark Before he could answer, a huge, insistent yawn engulfed his throat.

“You’re practically sleepwalking, aren’t you?” Her voice held a mixture of concern and exasperation.

“I’ll be fine once we sit down.” At least he hoped so. Pitching head first into his salad plate seemed equally likely.

“Let’s not do this tonight,” she said. “You need sleep, not a night on the town.”

“I’m fine.” But his words lacked conviction, and her answering frown radiated skepticism.

William was spared her rebuttal by the return of the hostess, followed by the rotund restaurant manager. “Good evening, Mr. Darcy,” he said, oozing unctuous charm. “It’s a pleasure to see you again. I hope Mrs. Darcy and Miss Darcy are well. And Mr. Fitzwilliam, of course.”

“Yes, thank you.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” The manager’s expression waffled between a cordial smile and a painful wince. “But I’m afraid we have a small problem. You see, your reservation was for over an hour ago. We assumed that your plans had changed.”

William raised his eyebrows, waiting in lofty silence for more information.

The manager’s smile vanished under the weight of the wince. “I’m afraid we gave up your table not five minutes ago.” His words tumbled out at a frantic pace. “Of course our next available table is yours, but it may be a while before one opens up.”

The message seeped into William’s foggy brain, and his nostrils flared. He prepared to berate the manager and stalk out of the restaurant, never to return. But Elizabeth spoke before his sleep-deprived synapses could send instructions to his vocal cords.

“Of course we understand,” she said. “But I don’t think it’ll work for us to wait for a table. I’m sure you don’t usually prepare food for carry-out, but perhaps just this once…?” She tilted her head, her eyebrows raised.

“Of course! It would be our pleasure.”

“Thank you so much,” she said. She glanced at William. “Shall we wait in the lounge? At least we can sit down in there.”

“Of course.” The manager extended his arm in that direction. “We could also serve you dinner in there, if you like.”

Elizabeth smiled, shaking her head. “Thank you, but we had our hearts set on a table outside.”

William brought up the rear of their little parade, befuddled by the swift grace with which Elizabeth had seized control of the situation. He hadn’t thought it possible, but her casual air of command made her even sexier.

Once they were settled comfortably on a sleek blue sofa in the lounge, Elizabeth smiled at him. “I’m sorry. I guess I should have run my plan by you first, shouldn’t I?”

He leaned back and stretched his arm across the sofa behind her head. “Actually, tonight I’m happy to let you take charge of everything.”

“Which just proves how exhausted you are.”

He smiled in rueful agreement. Even the prospect of waiting for their dinners didn’t bother him now that he was comfortably seated. “Speaking of your plan, where are we going to eat our carry-out dinners?”

“How about at Pemberley? I’m dying to see it.”

“Perfect.” They could eat on the patio by the pool, or in the garden gazebo. He frowned at his sudden tendency toward alliteration, chalking it up to fatigue. Or we could break bread in my bedroom. The thought jolted him wide awake. Yes, going to Pemberley suited him perfectly.

She nestled closer to him. “Maybe it’s just as well they didn’t have a table. I think you’re too tired to enjoy a leisurely dinner here. We need to get you home, fed, and tucked into bed as soon as possible.”

champagne He was still salivating over this tantalizing vision when the bartender arrived with a bottle of champagne and two glasses. “Compliments of the manager,” he said, his British accent softened by the characteristic lilt of the islands.

William and Elizabeth sipped their drinks, their eyes meeting and holding in silent contentment. The view from the lounge couldn’t compare to the atmosphere on the patio below, but he felt himself surrendering to the caress of the soft tropical air and the warmth of Elizabeth’s body next to his. He slid his foot over until it rubbed lazily against hers, and her smile broadened as she returned the gentle pressure. Then he set his glass on the low table in front of them and captured her hand. “I haven’t thanked you for wearing the emerald.”

“Why would you thank me?” She glanced down at it. “I love wearing it.”

“But I was glad to see it around your neck, to realize what it meant. At least, I assume I interpreted it properly.”

She nodded. “I couldn’t wear it for a while after … the night you left. But once I started thinking straight, wearing it made me feel closer to you.”

“When you tried to return it to me that night—” He paused, shaking his head, the pain still fresh.

“I’m sorry. It’s just that Charlotte had told me how much you probably paid for it.”

“I don’t care about the money. That’s not why I wanted you to have it.”

“But it seemed wrong to keep such an expensive gift when I wasn’t sure what might happen between us.”

“Then you were considering breaking off our relationship.” His heart contracted.

“I don’t know.” She tightened her grip on his hand. “I was hurt and confused; I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought I could make it hurt less if I put aside any reminders of you.” She shook her head, sighing. “It was pointless. I doubt I stopped thinking about you even once.”

He raised her hand to his lips. “It was the same for me.” He couldn’t articulate the way she had haunted him, but it lightened his spirits to hear that she’d been similarly afflicted.

“Not that I didn’t try to forget you. I refused to talk about you, and I made Jane take the orchids to her office so I wouldn’t see them. I tried to distract myself. I even went to a singles bar with some friends one night.”

William’s eyes narrowed. He preferred to think of her sitting alone longing for him, as he had for her.

“Don’t worry,” she said with a brittle smile that filled him with shame for his selfish thought. “It was awful. I saw someone who looked a little bit like you and it broke my heart. So I went home early and watched old black-and-white movies till I finally fell asleep on the sofa.”

He stroked her hand. “Poor Lizzy.”

Her eyes dropped to their hands. “I did that lots of nights. It was either that, or cry my eyes out, and I hate to cry. I was so mad at you, but I missed you so much.”

He could think of only one response. He leaned over and brushed his mouth against hers. She stroked his cheek as their lips lingered together, the contact feather-light yet profound, full of healing warmth.

When at last he raised his head, he noticed the restaurant manager watching them intently from what the man must have considered a discreet distance. “I think we’d better order before he has a heart attack,” William said with a crooked grin.

She opened her menu, mirth sparkling in her eyes. “I take it you’re a good customer?”

“Obviously not good enough to have a table held for me, but I suppose so. And the owners are social acquaintances.”

“Aha. No wonder the poor man was almost in tears. They expect him to sell as many dinners as possible, but he’s not supposed to tick off the owners’ friends.”

The hovering manager took their orders and departed for the kitchen, leaving them alone with the bartender. William draped his arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders and leaned back with a grateful sigh. He closed his eyes, fatigue and contentment melting his bones until he thought he might dissolve into the sofa. His fingers wove through her curls and skimmed her soft, bare shoulder, and she slid closer. Faint noises in the background flitted around the edges of his consciousness: the soft hum of voices on the terrace below, the occasional chimes and clicks of dishes and utensils jostling together. And beneath it all, the ever-present swish of the ocean, its waves timid and pliable on this side of the island.

“Should we tackle one of our difficult topics while we wait?” she asked, her voice rousing him from near-sleep.

He made a face. He didn’t want to risk spoiling the evening, and besides he thought it unwise to cross verbal swords with Elizabeth in his mentally depleted condition. “Can’t that wait till later?”

“Sure. We have time. At least, I assume we do. How soon do you have to be back in New York? Two, three days?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I assume you’re under orders to be home for Thanksgiving dinner, if not sooner.”

A tiny snort escaped William’s lips. She understood his grandmother remarkably well. “As long as you’re here, I’m here.” Not even the threat of Rose Darcy’s wrath would pull him from Elizabeth’s side.

“That’s sweet, but if you want to be with your family, I don’t mind going to New York with you.”

“Thank you, but no.” He had considered and rejected this possibility earlier in the evening.

“If it would be awkward to have me at the house, I could stay with Sally. I already called her to make sure.”

“That’s not the problem. You don’t know how much I’ve wanted to show you Pemberley, and finally I have my chance. Besides, down here I can have you all to myself.”

“Almost. Don’t forget my aunt and uncle.”

“I suppose I can share you with them a little.”

They fell silent again, and William felt himself drifting back into a contented stupor. He nearly kicked off his shoes and propped his feet on the coffee table before he remembered he wasn’t at home.

“Thank you for talking to Charles about Jane,” she said after a lengthy silence.

He roused himself from the edge of sleep. “No need to thank me. I should have done it sooner. I assume he contacted her?”

“You mean you don’t know?”

“I haven’t talked to him since I left LA.”

“He’s in San Francisco more or less permanently, and he and Jane—well, she says they’re taking things slowly, but I have a feeling they’ll be living together in their house soon and making plans for another wedding.”

“I’m glad.” He felt a pang at the mention of the house, since Charles would probably have to sell it. “I’m sorry for the pain I caused them, and you. It was a simple misunderstanding, but I know I was partly to blame.”

“You were,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone, “but Charles should have explained things better. And he should have told both you and his father to butt out of his life.”

He grinned ruefully, but the smile faded fast. “So my letter made a difference? To you, I mean.”

She nodded. “I thought you knew why Jane didn’t sign the pre-nup. With as little as Charles told you, it’s no wonder you had doubts. But, you know …” She hesitated, tipping her head and studying his face. She must have been satisfied with what she saw, because she continued. “You had an awful lot of confidence in your opinion of Jane, especially considering how little you knew about her. And even after you saw her more, and saw what she was really like …” Elizabeth shook her head. “Didn’t you ever stop to think that you might have been wrong?”

“I admit, I was confused at times. But given what I thought I knew about the pre-nup, and what I’d heard your mother say …” He fell silent. He had explained himself in his letter far better than he was likely to manage now.

She fell silent, inspecting her fingernails. “It hurts that you completely discounted my opinion of her.”

“No one would have expected you to have an unbiased view of your sister. Considering that she hadn’t signed the pre-nup, and that she showed no signs of having strong feelings for Charles, I think my conclusions were reasonable.”

Sighing, she sat forward and retrieved her champagne glass. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe Jane just doesn’t flaunt her emotions? That she prefers to be discreet?”

William lacked the patience for an interrogation, but he didn’t want to antagonize Elizabeth. He took refuge in his champagne glass.

“Here’s the part I find interesting,” Elizabeth said, her narrowed eyes focused on his glass. “Does Jane remind you of anyone? Someone else who prefers to keep his feelings private?”

She had positioned him so cleverly in the jaws of her trap that he hadn’t noticed until now, as it sprang shut. “I never thought of it that way.”

“There have been plenty of times when I didn’t have a clue what was going on in your head. Good thing I didn’t assume the worst and write you off, isn’t it?”

William was tempted to tell her that she had done precisely that when she cast him out, forbidding him to call her. In the interests of harmony, he brushed the thought aside and drew her close, stroking her hair. “I know I can be hard to read sometimes. You’ve heard Sonya and Richard tease me about being inscrutable, and sometimes I do it intentionally. But you’re the only one who’s ever had any doubts about my feelings for you.”

Her eyes dropped to her lap and then lifted to meet his inquiring gaze. “I know. Char and Jane have told me that more than once. I just had trouble believing you would care about someone like me.”

“I’ve never understood why. You’re funny and smart, you’re kind and generous to everybody but me—”

She winced. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m teasing,” he said, his smiling lips brushing her hair. “Mostly, anyway.”

Elizabeth drew away from him with a mischievous grin and poked his side. He wouldn’t have minded having a full-fledged tickle fight in private, where it might have evolved into something more interesting. But the lounge, even in its near-deserted state, was still a public place. He grabbed her forearms and held tight while she struggled to yank free from his grasp, giggling.

“Let me finish,” he said, staring directly into her eyes. “You also have the voice of an angel, you make me happy, and you’re so sexy you’ve had me tied in knots for months.”

Her lips twitched and she raised one eyebrow. “I thought we’d gotten you pretty well untangled at one point.”

After a quick glance to confirm that they were alone, he released her arms, brushed her hair aside, and nuzzled her neck just behind her ear, gratified by her soft sigh. “That was a long time ago,” he whispered.

“Then I guess we have our work cut out for us.” She brushed a slow, seductive finger along the neckline of his polo shirt, and he shuddered as his flesh sizzled beneath her touch.

He nearly hauled her on top of him, belatedly reminding himself yet again that the lounge offered no guarantee of privacy. “Where the hell is our food?”

Her eyes gleamed in obvious understanding. “I’m sure it’ll be here soon.”

“Not soon enough,” he grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest and scowling at her when she chuckled in response.

 

Elizabeth moaned softly. “Oh, that’s so good!”

“Ready for more?” Candlelight glittered in William’s dark, hungry eyes.

She nodded, and he slipped a spoon bearing a dollop of chocolate mousse between her parted lips. The rich concoction slid over her tongue and she moaned again in gustatory delight. He was watching her avidly, and she shivered at the knowledge that it wasn’t the mousse he coveted.

She snatched up the container of mousse and grabbed the spoon from his hand before he could react. “My turn,” she declared, her eyes sparkling.

“I knew you’d claim sole custody of the mousse before long. And I haven’t had any yet.”

“I’ll share,” she said, filling the spoon. “Open wide.”

His lips closed around the spoon, and it was as though he devoured her and not the mousse. His eyes, the pupils dilated, bored into hers, dark wells of emotion threatening to ignite at the slightest spark.

palm trees under a full moon It had been this way throughout dinner. On their arrival at Pemberley William had suggested dining on the patio, and they had set a candlelit table beside the swimming pool. It was improbably beautiful there, with the lights in the pool glowing, the palm trees whispering overhead in the steady breeze, and the ocean crashing into the shore below. But nothing, not even the skillfully prepared food she had consumed but barely tasted, could distract her from William for long.

Her senses were consumed by stark, visceral awareness of him. She stared at his arm, almost seeing the blood surge beneath his skin, and she thought she could hear the steady thump of his heart, synchronized to her own. Heat radiated from his body, and he seemed to broadcast waves of potent virility, setting her insides vibrating.

By the time he had opened the container of chocolate mousse and fed her the first spoonful, she had been entertaining thoughts of flinging herself into the pool to cool off, or flinging him to the ground and attacking him. If someone didn’t make the first move soon, she might burst into flames, leaving behind a pile of ashes to be swept onto the lawn by the gardener in the morning.

“Enough?” she asked him with a flirtatious smile, waving the spoon.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get enough.” His voice was soft yet emphatic, and his eyes stayed locked on her lips.

She filled the spoon again and extended it to him, intentionally directing it off course and smudging mousse onto the edge of his mouth. He grimaced and reached for his napkin, but she captured his hand. “Allow me,” she murmured, leaning toward him.

Elizabeth extended her tongue and delicately licked off the mousse. He groaned, a deep, tortured sound, and captured her lips with his. She sighed and buried her hands in his hair, her mouth opening willingly under his insistent pressure. He tasted of red wine and dark chocolate, a strangely ambrosial combination.

“Lizzy,” he gasped as he pulled his mouth from hers, “I’m trying to be patient, not to rush you into anything, but I want you so much. I don’t think I can wait much longer.”

“Neither can I,” she whispered.

“I love you, cara,” he groaned, rising to his feet and pulling her with him. He engulfed her in his arms and they strained together, hands seeking, mouths devouring, hearts racing. His head dropped to her bare shoulder, the one left uncovered by her dress, and his hot kisses left a path of gooseflesh behind. She moaned and pulled his polo shirt out from the waistband of his trousers, sliding her hands underneath and along the warm planes of his chest.

“Let’s go inside,” he gasped, and she nodded her assent. He took her hand and stalked into the house and up the stairs, Elizabeth nearly running to keep up with his long-legged strides.

bird of paradise She found herself in a spacious, airy bedroom, one wall banked with windows. Most were open, admitting the spicy fragrance of tropical plants seasoned with the tang of the ocean. French doors in the center of the wall led to a large balcony. A vase of birds of paradise adorned the dresser, and she approached them with a soft coo of pleasure. In the mirror she saw William yanking the bedspread off the bed with careless haste. Then he approached her and she turned to face him.

His eyes traveled over her from head to toe with undisguised hunger. “My God, you’re beautiful,” he whispered, enfolding her in his arms.

It was the second time that evening he’d said those words in hushed, reverent accents. It could have been the hundredth and she wouldn’t have tired of hearing it. “You’ve always made me feel that way.” She brushed his hair off his forehead. “I love you.”

She pulled his head down to hers and their lips met again, hot and demanding. His hands fumbled behind her and she felt her zipper give way. Then things happened with dizzying speed, and within what seemed to be mere seconds they were on the bed, hands and mouths seeking and exploring with frantic need.

William’s flushed face loomed above her, his chest heaving, his eyes black with passionate heat. The gentle man who had made love to her so tenderly in San Francisco, who had touched her with subtle reverence and restrained his own passions for her sake, was gone. In his place was a stranger with fire in his blood, a fire that answered in her own as his hands ran over her body demanding a response.

“I love you,” he groaned, positioning himself between her legs. Then he froze, his eyes widening in distress just as the same realization burst into her passion-soaked mind. With a muffled curse, he drew back, still kneeling between her thighs. “I can’t believe I almost—Lizzy, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” she whispered. “I forgot too, until that exact moment.”

He rolled off her and sat on the edge of the bed, his back to her. “Damn, damn, damn!”

She rarely heard one expletive from him, much less a string of three. “It’s okay,” she murmured, sitting up and stroking his back. “We stopped in time.”

“No, it’s not that.” He heaved a loud sigh. “I bought condoms at the hotel gift shop, but I left them in the car, back by the gatehouse. They’re hidden under the front seat.”

“Why did you hide them? Afraid I’d accuse you of trying to ruin my reputation?” She wrapped her arms around him from behind, kissing his neck.

He turned sideways and kissed her shoulder. “I wanted to be prepared, just in case. But I didn’t really think we’d end up here till later in the week, and I didn’t want you to think I was trying to rush you. Then, after we got here, it seemed as though you wanted …” His voice trailed off.

“It’s okay, you can say it. It seemed as though I wanted you as much as you wanted me. It’s true.”

He gave her a crooked, self-deprecating grin and glanced down at his lap. “I don’t know about that,” he said.

Men were at a disadvantage when it came to hiding their desires. She wished she could offer him some proof of her feelings. Then she realized that she could. “You don’t need to go outside to get your condoms,” she said softly. “We can use mine.”

“Yours?”

“The gift shop was a busy place this evening. I guess you were done shopping by the time I got there.”

William’s eyes widened. “You bought condoms too? ”

She laughed at the delight that spread across his face at this news. “Who knew that all it took to make you happy was a box of latex! My purse is in the kitchen. I’ll go get it.” She glanced around, searching for her dress.

He extended a restraining arm. “No, I’ll get it. It’s the least I can do.” After a long, breath-robbing kiss he rose slowly to his feet and sauntered from the room, while Elizabeth enjoyed the delicious view.

 

William felt like an idiot. He had once considered himself a man of some dignity, but now he found himself prowling the halls of Pemberley stark naked, a pale gray purse tucked under his arm. At least he had no worries about discovery. The married couple who managed Pemberley lived in the gatehouse, and were banished from the main house until morning.

candle He rounded the corner into the bedroom and froze. During his brief absence Elizabeth had extinguished the lights and lit a candle; its wavering flame cast shifting golden light around the bed. She lounged against the pillows, highlights glimmering in the hair streaming over her shoulders, her skin like creamy velvet above the sheet covering her. His insides tightened with a flash of pain, and he shook his head slowly. When he spoke his voice was hushed. “Lizzy, you take my breath away.”

Her shy smile warmed as her eyes slid over him. “You’re rather nice to look at yourself. The purse isn’t really your color, but I have a pair of high heels that would do great things for your legs.”

He grinned and crossed the room, his flesh tingling under her admiring stare. He slid beneath the sheet while she rummaged through her purse.

“Titan sized,” he read off the box she handed him. “Why, thank you, ma’am.”

“I have little basis for comparison,” she said, blushing to the roots of her hair. “But judging from my limited experience, you seem … that is, I thought you might need …” She blew a stream of air through her lips. “For God’s sake, I’m a grown woman. Why am I such a stuttering fool about things like this?”

“You’re not a fool, cara. This is new territory for you. At least I assume this was your first time buying condoms.” He opened the box.

She nodded. “And I couldn’t ask the clerk to try them on for size.”

He chuckled. “Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll be fine.” He extracted a packet and set it on the nightstand. “Now come here.”

She nestled close with a blissful sigh. “Now that you’re back, let’s promise that nobody leaves this bed for any reason.”

“Not ever? Fine with me.” He grinned. “But I’m almost glad we had to stop for a few minutes.” He leaned over to press a trail of kisses along her shoulder.

“Why?” She ran a lazy fingernail over his chest, toying with the dark, springy hairs growing there and teasing a nipple until it stood up in a tiny brown peak.

He bit his lip and groaned. He wasn’t sure if it was manly to enjoy having his nipples fondled, but it felt wonderful. He returned the favor, cupping her breast in his hand and rolling the soft pink tip between his thumb and forefinger.

She sighed deep in her throat. “You still haven’t answered my question,” she whispered.

“What question?” He kneaded the firm globe filling his hand, soft and pale and fragrant with jasmine. Hungry to taste her, he lowered his head.

“I asked you why … ohhhh … why you were glad we stopped for a while.” Her fingers threaded in his hair.

He glanced at her, befuddled by the question—his mind and his senses were filled with her—but then he remembered his earlier remark. “I was in too much of a hurry before. This is too important to rush.”

“This? You mean us making love?”

He brushed his thumb against her cheek as he spoke, absorbing the softness of her skin. “This is forever, Lizzy. At least it is for me. I have another chance with you, and I have to get it right this time.”

Her hands inched their way down toward his waist, stroking and teasing and spreading love in their wake. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “You’re getting it right.”

Then her hands moved lower and he gasped, his head falling back against the pillow, his eyes squeezed shut. His muscles contracted as he strained toward her, lifting his hips in silent supplication, but his heart sang with joy.

Time drifted by without meaning as they lay together, their hands and lips imparting healing balm to their souls. Elizabeth’s smiles on the beach had given him hope, and her forthright declaration of love at the hotel had soothed his pain. But it was only now, when she gave herself to him completely, that he knew without question that he was loved.

He could feel it in her gentle, seeking touch, and in the way she trembled when she molded her body against his, her lips warm and eager against his throat. He could feel it when, with a mischievous smile, she reached for the condom, determined to discover for herself whether or not it fit—and when, amidst avid kisses and shared laughter, they found that it did. He could feel it as he sank deep inside her, finding in her body’s warm welcome the home he had sought all his life. He could feel it as she lay beneath him, arching her hips to match his rhythm, joyful tears leaking from her eyes while his own tears splashed onto the pillow cradling her head. He could feel it when she pulled his body down on top of hers, no longer afraid of his weight, writhing against him as though trying to absorb him into her body, or to be absorbed herself. And he could feel it when she gripped his shoulders and cried out, her body shuddering in helpless ecstasy as her eyes locked with his, a universe of love streaming from their radiant green depths.

He reined in his own hunger and shifted slightly to one side, holding her close as her hands gradually relaxed their convulsive hold on his shoulders. Soon he felt her warm lips against his throat. “Mmm, you taste good,” she murmured.

His hands combed through her tangled hair. “Thank you,” he said softly.

“For what?”

“For loving me.” He touched a gentle finger to the emerald pendant, still hanging around her neck.

She stroked his cheek. “I do.”

“I know.” They kissed slowly, deeply, and he began to unconsciously circle his hips against her.

“Are you okay?” she asked softly. “You didn’t—”

“Not yet, but—”

“Yes.”

And it began again, his rhythm feverish now as he built toward his own release. He looked down into her loving eyes and thought of all his lonely dreams of lying with her—pallid, empty ghosts of something so rich and vital, something capable of turning his body and heart inside out and his life upside down. And then he felt the rush of white hot sensation welling up from his toes, tightening every muscle in his body along the way, and he couldn’t think at all. He threw back his head, a fierce groan erupting from his throat as he fell over the edge into euphoric oblivion.

 

Elizabeth cradled William’s head against her breast, dabbing at his forehead with the sheet. His rapid breathing gradually relaxed as they lay together in profound silence that required no words. In these rare, perfect moments he was entirely hers, nothing held back, no defenses, his soul given to her for safekeeping. She stroked his back, overwhelmed by the protective impulse that clogged her throat and filled her eyes with tears.

Outside, the voices of the tree frogs rose in their nocturnal chorus, backed by the distant roar of the sea. William’s breathing assumed the slow cadence of sleep, fanning her heated skin at regular intervals. She reached across to the nightstand and pinched out the candle flame, leaving the room illuminated by only a faint lick of moonlight.

“I love you,” she whispered, skimming his damp curls away from his forehead. “And I think it’s forever for me too.”

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1 Many of the locations in the story are real places; however, Cliffside restaurant is an amalgam of a few places on Barbados. I mention thhis because after I wrote this chapter I found out that there’s a place called Cliffside on the east coast of Barbados. See the “Story Locations” information on the “Extras” page for more information.